Piles of debris formed by Lake Michigan's winds and tides dotted the approximately 200-foot-by- 400-foot section of beach located just outside Chicago's city limits. To the huddled group of UL volunteers, the jumbled heaps looked natural—sticks, rocks and seaweed appeared to be its composition. But, as the team started to pick through the assortment, hundreds of thousands of dime-sized pieces of plastic started to emerge.
"It was disheartening," said Jeffery Raffaelli, project chemist with UL's Water Systems. "We were trying to get as much as we could, sifting through the sand; we could have stayed there eight or 10 hours and not made a dent."
For Raffaelli and Amanda Fisher, water business development manager, seeing the effects of consumerism and its impact on the environment offered them a different view of water protection.
"We know the importance of water: We work to protect it as it flows through products in the water distribution system," Fisher said. "But trash in our source water can add unforeseen contaminants, potentially hurting plant or animal life, increasing the effort to treat water at the utility, and raising the chances of contaminants reaching the general public."
From water treatment to tap
When water leaves a treatment facility, it should, in theory, meet safe water requirements. But then, as the water travels through the distribution system, it's gaining contaminants from the myriad of touchpoints on its journey. Think pipes, fittings, coatings and valves, to name a few.
UL's water team evaluates drinking water system components, or, as Fisher noted, "anything that touches the drinking water pathway, from water treatment to tap" for their impact on human health.
"We similarly evaluate the toxicity of drinking water treatment chemicals, plumbed and non-plumbed water treatment devices like filters and rainwater harvesting devices," Fisher said.
Raffaelli is quick to point out that even fire hydrants need to be tested. "If you ever visit my desk, you'll notice a large red fire hydrant sitting there," he said. "It's the most visible thing we work with, and I'm kind of proud of it."
Their laboratory in Northbrook, Illinois, uses conditioning waters to simulate the extremes that a product may experience across the U.S. Components are exposed to different pH ranges and temperatures over a specific number of days. They then take that water to analyze it to see what contaminants were shed.
"The analyses we run on the resulting water are dependent on what materials make up the product," Fisher said. "If the product is made up of stainless steel or brass alone, we will likely only analyze for metal contaminants. If a product is made of multiple components like gaskets, coatings, lubricants and metal alloys, then we're analyzing the water for a number of organic and inorganic compounds of interest."
A role to play in keeping water clean
Fisher and Raffaelli were eager to join in November's beach cleanup. The volunteer opportunity centered around UL's 125 Streams initiative to help tackle the different challenges facing the world in 2020. UL has set a goal to have cleaned 125 waterways — streams, rivers, lakes — by World Water Day 2020.
Safe and readily available water is essential to public health. To sustain life on this planet, we all need access to clean water to quench our thirst, prepare our food, clean our bodies and even enjoy recreational access to pollutant-free water.
But, according to the World Health Organization, 785 million people lack even a basic drinking-water service, including 144 million people who rely solely on surface water to meet their drinking and sanitation needs.
In developed countries, people often take their access to clean water for granted, a point conceded by Raffaelli.
"Before joining UL, I knew pipes took water from treatment facilities to my house, but I didn't understand the number of requirements that go into making sure all those components meet environmental guidelines," he said. "I saw the 125 Streams project as an opportunity to look at water quality from a different perspective, as a whole system from source to faucet."
Participating in the cleanup helped bring into focus the broader picture, that safeguarding water quality involves more than just pipes. It's also understanding what else goes into our waterways and, ultimately, into our water systems.
"It felt good to help," Raffaelli said. "Knowing that at least 124 other groups of our size were trying to do the same thing across the world balances out that disheartening factor. You know people are aware of it, you know people are trying," he said.
"It's inspiring to see UL's commitment to protecting our water — both at the source through this cleanup effort and in the distribution system through our product certification program," Fisher said. "I'm hoping each of us that participated can use what we learned to make a difference and be more conscious of how our actions impact our waterways."
"We're doing our part to help keep our drinking water clean," she added.